The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of
Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing
of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between
houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown
gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public
buildings, processions

moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and
gray, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies
and chatting as they walked. In other streets the music beat faster, a
shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the
procession was a dance. Children dodged in and out, their high calls
rising like the swallows’ crossing flights over the music and the
singing. All the processions wound towards the north side of the city,
where on the great water-meadow called the Green Fields boys and
girls, naked in the bright air, with mud-stained feet and ankles and
long, lithe arms,exercised their restive horses before the race. The
horses wore no gear at all but a halter without bit. Their manes were
braided with streamers of silver, gold, and green. They flared their
nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another; they were vastly
excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our
ceremonies as his own. Far off to the north and west the mountains
stood up half encircling Omelas on her bay. The air of morning was so
clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned
withwhite-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark
blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that
marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then. In the silence of
the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding throughout the
city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful
faint sweetness of the air from time to time trembled and gathered
together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of

They were not simple folk, you see, though they were happy. But we do
not say the words of cheer much any more. All smiles have become
archaic. Given a description such as this one tends to make certain
assumptions. Given a description such as this one tends to look next
for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his
noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled
slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep
slaves. They were not barbarians, I do not know the rules and laws of
their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they
did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the
stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the
bomb. Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet
shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. There were not less complex
than us.

The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and
sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather
stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the
treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the
terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it
hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to
embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost
lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any
celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas?
They were not naive and happy children–though their children were, in
fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose
lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it
better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a
city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps
it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming
it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For
instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or
helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that
the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just
discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor
destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category,
however–that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of
comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.–they could perfectly well have
central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of
marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources,
fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of
that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it. I incline to think that
people from towns up and down the coast have been coming to to Omelas
during the last days before the Festival on very fast little trains
and double-decked trams, and that the trains station of Omelas is
actually the handsomest building in town, though plainer than the
magnificent Farmers’ Market. But even granted trains, I fear that
Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells,
parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would
help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which
issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy
and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who
desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my
first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in
Omelas–at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely
the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like
divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the
flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above
the copulations, and the gory of desire be proclaimed
upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of
these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing
I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there
be? I thought at first there were no drugs, but that is
puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of
drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a
great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after
some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very
arcane and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the
pleasure of sex beyond all belief; and it is not habit-forming. For
more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what
else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the
celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do
without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the
right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A
boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not
against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest
in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s
summer: This is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the
victory they celebrate is that of life. I don’t think many of them
need to take drooz.

Most of the processions have reached the Green Fields by now. A
marvelous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of
the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in
the benign gray beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are
entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are
beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old
woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket,
and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of
nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd alone, playing on a wooden

People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him,
for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly
rapt in the sweet, thing magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a
trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious,
melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some
of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the
horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering. “Quiet, quiet, there my
beauty, my hope…” They begin to form in rank along the starting
line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and
flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No?
Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas,
or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there
is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps
in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed
window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a
couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a
rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar
dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet
or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a
boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is
feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become
imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose
and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits
hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is
afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it
knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and
nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes,
except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or
interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person,
or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the
child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at
it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug
are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people
at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always
lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s
voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me
out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for
help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of
whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so
thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on
a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks
and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own
excrement continually.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have
come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They
all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and
some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty
of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of
their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their
makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of
their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and
twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those
who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an
adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the
matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always
shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had
thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence,
despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the
child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up
into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed
and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were
done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight
of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To
exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that
single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands
for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within
the walls indeed.

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word
spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when
they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may
brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to
realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get
much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food,
no real doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to
know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of
fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane
treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without
walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own
excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they
begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept
it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity
and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true
source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid,
irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not
free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and
their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of
their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of
their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with
children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling
in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful
music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the
sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe them? Are they not more credible? But there is one
more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does
not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at
all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day
or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and
walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out
of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking
across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl,
man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the
houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the
fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They
go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they
do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less
imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe
it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to
know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

* * THE END * *